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Is Your Child in Trouble Again?

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If the child keeps doing the same behavior, should we consider another approach?

I’ve met a lot of kids whose body language changes the minute they think someone is going to talk to them about their behavior. They either look resigned and defeated or combative and hostile. Sometimes they’ll throw in, “I know. I’m a bad kid” or, “I’m always being called out.”

Couple that with a parent, teacher or coach who already views the child’s action as negative, and it’s no wonder that the exchange does not go well.

But what if we wipe out a perception that the child was “bad” or did something “wrong” when we approach her about a concerning behavior?

What if, instead, we first assure the child that we want to help, rather than punish, her?

What if we then communicate in a way that helps her understand why the behavior is worrisome—and therefore helps her conclude on her own that such behavior is not in her best interest?

So how do we do that?

We start by assuring kids that they are not in trouble . . . that we just want to talk to see if we might be able to help them. Upon hearing those words, it’s amazing how many resigned, slouching kids sit up straight or how many hostile kids automatically unfold their arms.

We then explain why the concerning behavior may not serve them well. To do that, I find it helpful to make a connection between what happens in the brain every time the child does the behavior and how that may then cause problems today, tomorrow, and far into the future.

Here are a few examples of how such a dialogue might start:

Behavior: Son hits his mother when he’s upset
Father’s starting dialogue: Every time you hit your mom, you’re reinforcing a brain map that says, “Hitting a female is okay if you’re angry.” The only problem is . . . there is nowhere on this entire planet where anyone thinks it’s okay to hit a female—at any time. So it worries me that your brain is learning something that it thinks is fine—when it’s definitely going to mess you up.

Behavior: Child doesn’t wait before being given the signal or permission to do something
Mother’s starting dialogue: Every time you don’t wait, you’re reinforcing a brain map that says, “If I’m feeling impatient, it’s okay to go ahead and do whatever.” The only problem is . . .there are lots of times when it’s in our best interest to wait—and how is your brain ever going to learn that?

For example, what if your ball rolls out into the street and you run to get it without waiting to see if any cars are coming? What if when you’re older and driving, you don’t feel like waiting at a red light—so you just punch it?

Note how the above dialogue is focused on helping the child reflect, not defend, his concerning behavior.

For those who are saying: What? The kid gets off scot-free with this approach?

Guess it depends on the parent’s goal. I’m thinking if the child has already been previously scolded and punished for the behavior—and she still continues to do it—the punitive approach probably isn’t working all that well.

Maybe that’s a sign to try something different.

When Eavesdropping is Good

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It’s sometimes easier to “hear” a
message when eavesdropping.

If you want your child to hear a particular message, then say it to someone else—but while he’s in earshot.

Yes, there’s nothing like a little eavesdropping—especially when we overhear our own name—to make the ears perk up. As parents, we can take advantage of this fact and deliberately create opportunities for our child to eavesdrop.

How does this work? Well, suppose we want to remind our child that he’s not playing video games after dinner if his room isn’t clean. However, if we tell him that directly, he may hear that reminder as nagging or as a confrontational challenge (if he thinks it’s not a fair policy).

Yet, it’s an entirely different ballgame if we casually comment to someone else, “I know that Ryan wants to play video games this evening, and I’m positive that’s only going to happen if his room is clean.”

As the eavesdropper, Ryan still gets the intended message, but now it’s going into the brain in “third” person. He’s merely an outsider hearing a comment that happens to involve him.

And since most eavesdroppers don’t like to announce they’re listening to someone else’s conversation, they probably won’t respond to what they’ve just heard. If so, then we’ve sent the message and avoided a potential squabble. Seems like a pretty easy way to ensure more harmony in the home.

For teens, all we have to do is lower our voice a tad when they’re in the next room, and suddenly they’re tuned in to every word we’re saying. Who knew getting their attention could be that easy?

So eavesdropping probably won’t ever make the list of good manners, but it can expedite communicating a message to our kids without much ado. And that can be really enticing in many households.

How to End Screaming: Part 2

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Kids can learn that screaming
is an undesirable way to respond.

To clarify: We’re talking about learned screaming.  We’re not talking about a child who’s screaming because he’s hurt and in true physical pain.

To end screaming, we need to first acknowledge the following:

  • Our child screams because he’s learned that this response has been beneficial to him.
  • Each time we allow our child to scream, he creates an even bigger brain map that encourages and reinforces future screaming.
  • If our child is a screamer, we haven’t taught him different, more positive ways to respond.
  • We can end screaming if we change how we respond to it, and if we hold our child accountable for more appropriate reactions (that we’ve modeled and taught).

If our child already has a big brain map that says SCREAM, we may initially need to do some groundwork to get back on track. Here are some ideas for different situations.

Public Outbursts

Yes, it’s hard to ignore our child’s screaming when we’re in our local grocery store, since people do stare.  So that’s why we drive to a grocery store in another county—where we’ll never see those people again—and let our child wail away. Once in the car, we tell our child that screaming no longer gets our attention or prompts us to exit quickly.

Screaming at Home

We tell our child that he can scream for as long as he likes because we now enjoy screaming. So when he starts to scream, we encourage him to be even louder. We smile and clap our hands.  We dance around him.  We get the whole family to join in.

Why?  Well, the brain becomes totally confused by this completely unexpected response. In fact, some kids just stop screaming—cold—while they’re trying to process it all.  But the point is . . . if our child’s brain now perceives screaming as something fun for others (and he’s not part of that), then it no longer retains its old power.

Pre-emption

If we know our child is more vulnerable to screaming when he’s tired or over-stimulated, we leave (wherever) before he gets to that point during this “re-educating” stage.

Differentiated Touch

If our child is used to being embraced while screaming, we establish touching him in a way that differs from how we hold him while we’re (legitimately) comforting or being affectionate. For example, if we need to physically move our child while screaming, we now use a cold and impersonal touch.

Yuck and Yay

If we’re used to trying to calm our child down while screaming, we may need to adopt a simple one-word approach (especially if our child is very young).  At the very first scream, we merely put our thumb down and say with a lot of presence: Yuck.

But that‘s it. We only get one yuck. Multiple yucks while the child continues to scream only results in giving the same attention as engaging in a conversation—and we don’t want that.  Moreover, if our first yuck didn’t get the job done, it’s likely because we lacked a calm, but assertive, demeanor when saying it.  So changing our presence—not repeating yuck—moves things forward.  In contrast, we also need to reinforce when our child doesn’t scream by immediately saying: Yay!

New Responses

If we have a screamer, we probably know what sets him off.  So, we role play those situations, modeling different responses.  For example, we might pretend we’re out shopping and model saying, “Mom, I’m really tired, and there’s so much noise in this mall.  Do you think we could leave soon?”  (Note that saying, “Use your words!” is not effective in eliminating screaming.)

And just as some folks need to chew gum when they initially give up smoking, some kids may need to adopt a silent scream during this transition period.  To do so, they open their mouths as wide as possible and go through all the motions of a huge scream—but they just never use their vocal cords.

Short Goals

To help our child’s brain register that it is capable of being quiet, we may need to start with really short goals.  For example, if we want our child to be quiet while we’re talking to someone else, we may set it up so that our child knows he’s going to be quiet for just 20 seconds.  With that success, we build (at different times) to 30 seconds, 50 seconds, and so on.

The bottom line on screaming: Since no one in the world embraces this kind of response, there’s no time like the present to eliminate it.

How Money Messes with Parents’ Thinking

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How often do we allow money
to dictate our parenting decisions?

What if our current finances cloud our ability to make decisions about programs for our kids?

There’s a simple way to prevent that from happening. We can either take money entirely out of the equation, or we can actually make it the entire focus.

Here’s what I mean. When we take money out of the equation, we pretend we’re Bill or Melinda Gates. That frees us to review a program solely on its merit.  Since this is merely a mental exercise, we really don’t have to think about money at that moment.

We only bring money back into the equation if we conclude the program is something we’d like our child to participate in.  And yes, at this point, we have to consider our current finances.

But since we’ve already decided our child would benefit from the program, we’re now more likely to explore creative solutions to make it happen.  On the other hand, there’s no chance our child participates if we go straight to: We can’t afford it.

The opposite mental exercise (putting money into the equation) can also be helpful if our child is participating in or offered a free program.  Here, we ask ourselves: Would I actually pay for this service if my child couldn’t get it for free?  If the answer is no, then we may want to reconsider whether or not our child should participate.

You might be thinking . . . But why would anyone opt out of something that doesn’t cost anything?

If a program isn’t a good fit for our child (i.e. we wouldn’t pay for it ourselves), there can be a definite downside.  Our child probably doesn’t have more spare time to participate in another program that better meets his needs. Or, if we try to cram that better program in as well, we risk putting our child on overload.

And what if our child doesn’t benefit after participating in various free programs?  We may then shut down when we hear about yet another program.  We become like folks who resist riding in taxis because they’ve already spent so much time on free buses that took them nowhere.

So that’s why we need to “play” with money in our mind.  After all, it doesn’t cost us anything to do so, and it just may shine a new light on our decisions.

Unleashing Parent Power

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As parents, we may underestimate the power we have to bring about positive changes.

The Fialco family makes me wonder if there isn’t a lot more untapped parent power out there, just waiting to surface.

Their multimedia project, Starabella, features an unconventional heroine, a kindergartner with autism, who connects with her peers through her gift of music.  The trailer is a good watch for both parents and kids—especially since there’s a story behind the story.  The books were inspired by the experiences of Sharon Fialco’s daughter, Tara, who has autism.  The story behind the story gets even better: Tara composed and performed 17 of the 22 songs on the CDs.

I like the message of this project—one of acceptance—but I also like that it reminds us that, as parents, we can do more than just wish that something might be different for our kids. We may actually have the power to bring about positive change.

And, no, it doesn’t have to be some huge project.  For example, if we don’t like that kids are running “wild” at recess, maybe we can organize a group of parents to lead some activities for those kids who would benefit from a more structured recess.  Or, if we’re upset that the school bathrooms do not have soap (true example), we can offer to approach concerned parents to see if they might collectively donate a year’s supply.

When my kids were young, I wanted them to have a sense of school community, yet there wasn’t one school-wide program on their site to bring the students together.  So with the blessing of the staff and a crew of enthusiastic parents, we brought an amazing hands-on ocean program to their school.  Almost two decades later, all of the students still engage in this program each year.

So what are other examples of positive parent action? Share your experiences with us!  As parents, the more examples we learn about, the more we may be inspired to act on our own.

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